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Later vs. Better

So I’m late once again putting out my monthly newsletter and CD…  and don’t even get me started on how late the book is.

I fight with myself about this stuff all the time, because on the one hand, I want to be neat and timely and well-organized and perfect, but on the other hand, I want to make good stuff.

See, after almost a year of false starts, I’m finally working on the book I really wanted to write in the first place, instead of the watered down version that I thought I had to write in order to do it in a shorter time frame.

It’s much more ambitious, more illustrated, and far more systematic than what I was initially settling for, but the cost of doing that is that I keep discovering things in the outline that need to be tweaked and rearranged.  (But hey, that’s better than writing almost half the book first, the way I tried it the first time around…)

The tough thing is really just the nagging self-doubt: am I just using the improvements to justify the delay?

I mean, it’s not like I consciously delayed anything in order to get better ideas; it just “happened” that way – in part, because I put myself through seven hells to write those first seven chapters, and the further hell of deciding to let them go and start over.

Without that experience, and the experiences running my first attempt at a Mindhacking 101 course, I never would’ve learned just how utterly incompetent I was as a designer-of-learning.  (I’d say as a teacher, but I’m really not bad at teaching individuals; it’s designing large-scale courses and “learning experiences” that I sucked at, and possibly still do.)

But the part of my brain that tries to prevent criticism argues that none of that matters.  You missed the deadline!, it says.  You missed every deadline, it says.

When I was a professional programmer, I never used to miss deadlines.  I’d cut features instead.  In fact, I used to be insanely paranoid about defining deliverables so that I had total freedom to cut, and about arranging development strategies so that after a relatively short duration, there was always a “shippable” project…  precisely because I dreaded missing deadlines.

So there’s a part of me that freaks out every time I think about how much longer I’ve been working on the book than I thought I’d be, and the part where I’m living on savings while I do this, in the middle of a not-so-good economy where some of my long-time customers have been dropping subscriptions due to their not having jobs, either.

And sometimes it seems like, the more I work on this thing, the more work I discover I need to do!

Like the alpha-testing my wife and I are doing on a series of new organizing and motivation methods we’ve been co-developing, cool new tricks and tools with names like CALL, “Plan B”, Flash-Forward, and IDOC – all of which have never been seen before in the self-help & productivity arena, and are designed to overcome certain specific stumbling blocks that “naturally struggling” people have, while fitting together into a complete system.

So, I’d been planning to do this month’s CD on the “CALL” method, but I kept having to put off starting the recording because Leslie and I kept tweaking the method.  As I first conceived it, it was going to be a 5-minute method with 4 steps, and now it’s a 7-minute method with 5 steps.

But either way, it’s something you do each evening before bed that makes you go to sleep feeling great about the day before, and literally wake up looking forward to the next day, every single time…  even when Comcast wakes you up 2 hours earlier than usual to fix your broken internet connection and you have to look at that burning ball of bright light in the sky.

(As it happens, I only got the fifth step figured out correctly this week, in between two early-morning visits from Comcast, so I actually got to stress-test two slightly-different versions of the fifth step and definitely establish which one worked better!)

Of course my inner critic says, “Sure, it’s nice that you have a better method, but you shouldn’t have picked to do the CD on this if you didn’t have it down pat already.”

But you know something?  Should and shouldn’t are never true.  When you say that, for example, “people should be nice”, what you’re really saying is: “people aren’t nice, and I don’t like it.”

So just by saying “should”, you’ve already gotten into a pissing contest with reality, and making yourself feel bad for no reason.  And what’s even worse is, this doesn’t actually motivate you to do anything about it!

Sure, it feels like you’re doing something – getting all righteously mad at the world or beating up on yourself certainly seems like it’s being productive in some way.  After all, it shows that you’re tackling a Serious and Important Issue, right?

Unfortunately, that’s just what evolution wants you to feel.  Evolution wants you to beat up on yourself, so that other people don’t have to!

How many times have you told yourself you “should” start an exercise program, or work on that novel or album or business?  How many times have you said you “shouldn’t” smoke or eat sweets or go to bed so late?

Doesn’t do much, does it.  That’s because guilt and shame and self-directed indignation are all just social signals.  We evolved them to communicate to the rest of the tribe that we really do think the tribe’s standards and values are important, and please, don’t beat the crap out of me because, really, I’ve already learned my lesson!

Yes, your feelings are sincere, and you feel them even when other people aren’t around and maybe don’t even care what you do, but if these feelings didn’t work that way, they wouldn’t be convincing to others when you really needed them to be!

But evolution, that sneaky bastard, also knows that whatever it is the tribe has a standard against, is also something that benefits you in some way: less work, more food, more screwing with another person’s mate…  whatever.

So these guilt and shame feelings aren’t wired to anything that actually changes your attitude towards the forbidden fruit!  Instead, guilt and shame just work to temporarily change your behavior, long enough to convince the tribe you’ve reformed your shameful ways…  before you go right back to them!

In other words, feeling bad about yourself was never intended to make you change your ways.  It’s all for show

A show that works best, if it also deceives you.

That’s why “should” and “shouldn’t” are lies.  A decoy to distract you from the truth about what you’re currently doing:

Like the fact that you want to do it.

Like the fact that you get something out of it.

And until you deal with whatever you get by doing what you’re doing, or feel you’d lose by doing something else, you’re going to just keep right on staying the same.

Of course, when you look at them closely, a lot of “should”s turn out not to matter very much in the first place.  Leftover rubbish from childhood, most of them: You should be perfect, neat, clean, tidy, obedient, and respectful.  You shouldn’t be lazy, messy, mistake-making, selfish, late.

Every should and shouldn’t simply means “you’re a bad person and will be kicked out of the tribe unless you conform”.  It doesn’t mean “do/don’t do this because it’s actually good/bad for you” – in fact, it’s usually just the opposite.

The message is, “don’t do this, because, even though it’s good for you, it’s bad for others, and so group would fall apart if everyone did it.”

And yet, these values can vary from tribe to tribe, family to family.  In one, neatness might be a virtue, and the other, sloppiness.  The tribe’s standards are merely that tribe’s standards.

And in the modern world, what tribes you want to belong to is largely up to you!

So it may seem like you have only two choices when confronting a “should” or “shouldn’t”:  to acknowledge what you “really” want (and give up the “should”), or to give up what you “really” want, and push through with conformance.

But this isn’t really the full picture.  The dirty little secret that science understands (but self-help mostly doesn’t , yet) is that positive and negative emotions are largely independent.  That is, you can like something and dislike it, while also liking and disliking its opposite,  all at the same time.

WTF?  What does that have to do with anything?

Good question.  What it means is that you can want to be neat, at the same time as you’re afraid of being a slob, while also not liking to put things away.

In other words, it means you can be conflicted.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, it also means you can give up the “fear of being a slob” part, without giving up the “wanting to be neat” part!

So you can abandon your “shoulds”, without giving up whatever genuine value they have for you.

See, positive and negative emotions are only partly independent: when you have enough negative emotion or enough positive emotion, the other kind tends to shut down.  So when you combine “fear of being a slob” with “not liking to put stuff away”, you get a powerful negative emotion level that switches off your desire to actually do anything about the mess!

But if you drop the “fear of being a slob” part, and just have “wanting neatness”, then you actually have a chance of that overriding your “not liking to put stuff away”.  In fact, it’s amazing how often your real level of resistance to action is ridiculously low, compared to the negative emotion-boost it was getting from whatever you were afraid of.

And I call this idea, “what pushes you forward, holds you back.”  Because whatever you think you should or shouldn’t do, is really just a fear.  And up to a certain point, fear diminishes your motivation.

Fear makes you freeze, like a deer in the headlights.  It wants you to wait until the very last moment before you take action.  And it creates precisely the procrastination and “laziness” that you’re afraid of!

Back in the first half of 2008, before I started writing the book, I was getting my newsletters and CDs out on time, pretty much every time.  (One was a few days late, the others were all on time.)  But after I got really into the book, and started panicking about how long it was taking, I started getting later and later with the newsletters and CDs as well.

And the more I was thinking how being late with the book was really embarassing (given its topic), the less motivated I got…  and not just about writing the book.

But all this time, I’ve been largely unwilling to let go of my “shoulds” around this.

See, when you want to “be on time”, but also to “not be late”, the feeling of not- wanting is usually stronger.  When what pushes you forward holds you back, it’s precisely because it’s stronger than whatever desire is pulling you forward!

And this gives you the illusion that you need your fear, because, I mean, if you’re doing so badly now, with it, how the hell are you going to do anything if you don’t have it?

If I’m afraid of being late, then I am also afraid of being without my fear, because then I think I’ll always be late!

And if being late – even by a day or two on a monthly newsletter – is so bad that it’s unthinkable, then, the idea of not being afraid of it is even scarier.  What if I become some sort of terrible lazy person who just shows up whenever they feel like it, making people wait and being rude, never actually getting anything done and being disliked by everyone?

And so I argue back and forth with myself: logically, a really good newsletter 2 days late is better than a crappy one 2 days early…  but a professional should be able to keep to a schedule…  but so many things I end up writing about are serendipitous and couldn’t have been planned in advance…  but…

Back and forth, back and forth.  Logical arugment gets you nowhere with yourself, because there’s no referee, no judge to declare the winner of the debate.  It’s just you and yourself, fighting endlessly.

So to break the logjam, you have to do something different.  Step outside the conflict, and see through the problem.  Recognize it as an illusion, an instance of the pattern, “fear doesn’t help in non-emergency situations”, and then dissolve it.

Fear of being late doesn’t help when you’re not late, and it doesn’t help you even when you are.  Sure, it makes you rush around, but then you make mistakes, and maybe screw up whatever it is you’re late for.

Fear of being fat doesn’t help you lose weight – it makes you anorexic, bulimic, or just avoid the whole issue entirely!

Fear of being alone doesn’t help you socialize.  Fear of being lazy doesn’t make you work harder, except maybe right before a deadline.

In every case, fear is not the answer, even though it makes us think it is.

So as I write this, I choose to let go of the fear of being late – or more specifically, what being late “says about me”.  What image I convey to the “tribe” my brain thinks I belong to.

I ask myself, “what’s the worst that could happen?”, and then I face it.  I could be criticized, made fun of.  I could be a laughingstock, the “late” author of a productivity book.  Everyone will hate me and I’ll be all alone in the world.

And then I ask the magic question: “so, what happens after that?”

And the answer, as always, is nothing.

Nothing happens after that.

Because my brain never really thought that scenario through in the first place.  It just made an awful picture to scare me, not a reasoned analysis of cause and effect!

It never even considered whether maybe, for example, the story of my struggles with the book might actually be appealing to people who are struggling with their projects.  It never considered whether the theme of giving up a certain amount of “control” might be necessary or even central to some of what I’m writing about.

It never considered the fact I might do better at being timely if I wasn’t so busy watching the goddamn clock all the time.

It never considered anything, because considering things is not your brain’s job.

It’s your job.

Yeah, you.  It’s your job to pay attention to these things, and to help your brain out with a little questioning and considering, from time to time.

Not arguing.  Not fighting.  Not scolding yourself and laying down the law.  Because that shit is not considering anything.  It sure as hell isn’t thinking things through.

Years and years and years ago, I read a book that talked about this idea of considering the worst-case scenario, but I got the wrong idea from it.

I thought that I could just say to myself, “what’s the worst that could happen”, or just remember that the worst case is always something ridiculous.

But it doesn’t work that way, because action is not an abstraction.  Each belief and fear and idea that you have is an individual program that must be changed on its own.

You have to actually consider each fear you have, individually.  See in your mind, and fully experience whatever it is you’re afraid of, and ask yourself what happens next.

And for each part of the process, you must let your brain do the talking, while you shut the hell up and listen.

And watch.

And feel.

Because it’s not you who has the fear.  You with your logic and your reasoning and your explanations…  you know nothing about the fear, and it’s not you that needs to drop it.

Your brain is the frightened animal, and you are the horse whisperer.  So ask.



Because when you do, the animal inside can then see that this one specific fear is meaningless.  It can see that even if that worst case happened, in our modern world (unlike our tribal past!), you could still survive and go on.

But you can’t just tell yourself this.  You have to experience it.

I call this process RMI, for “Relaxed Mental Inquiry”.  It’s the process of asking yourself questions, and waiting for the answers to come.  It is the X-ray and the scalpel, the reins and the spur, the basis of all mind-hacking.

A form of it is found in every mental discipline that changes emotions and behavior, from hypnosis to psycho-cybernetics, from NLP and CBT to The Work and The Secret.  It is the bridge between conscious and unconscious, the basis of creativity and intuition.

It is command mode and query mode, the computer terminal of the brain.  Virtually everything I teach makes use of it, by simply asking different questions, or using different patterns of questioning.

It works miracles, but it is not a single, universal miracle that instantly turns you into a better person in all ways at all times.  And knowing how to use it, doesn’t mean you always will use it!  Because it’s easy to use it to fix a bug you know is there, but not so easy for the ones you don’t notice.

For example, I’ve spent most of my life subconsciously trying to “be good”, but only realized I was doing it a few weeks ago.  Because being good in itself wasn’t the problem, it’s just that it was a five year-old‘s idea of his **parents’** definition of good, i.e., not being “bad and selfish”.

So when I used an RMI technique (the Gateway of Desire) to drop that need, my relationship with my wife went through a rapid transformation, because I stopped “being nice” because I was supposed to, and started being nice because I wanted to.

Heck, it was Leslie who pointed out the change (raved about it, actually), because to me everything just felt totally natural.  I stopped feeling obligated and resentful about some things, and we’ve ended up spending a lot more time together on household projects, going out and doing things, and even more bedroom fun.  (We even started collaborating more on the book and other projects in my business!)

So each change we make to ourselves is a little miracle – a big change, but in very a specific, narrow context.  It doesn’t make us into perfect people in every way, overnight.  Getting rid of a need to be “good” did nothing about my need to “not be late”, even though it replaced a lot of my supposedly “unselfish” behaviors with genuinely unselfish ones.

Thus, transformation and growth go on, no doubt for as long as we keep living.  Things change, and we adapt.

And so it is that I’ll adapt, going forward, to not being afraid of being late.  Because I already knew what the right thing to do was, with respect to making the best book (and the best everything else), but now I feel better about actually doing it.

I can set aside the marketing voice that said I shouldn’t be late because it’s bad for my image, the business voice that says I should cut corners so I can sell something sooner, and the critical voice that says all of this is just rationalization to excuse my slow/lazy/disorganized self from blame.

Because the funny thing is, negatives don’t combine well.  It’s hard to avoid three things at once, but easy to go after three things at once.

For example, I could (and probably will) start creating online courses for different segments of what’s being taught in the book, and release them before the book is finished…  some for free, and some for sale.  I can teach (and already have been) some of the techniques in my newsletters and CDs and workshops.

There is really nothing stopping me from doing business, or being on time, or creating the best possible things, if I am treating them all as positives to be combined, instead of as negatives to be avoided.

And if you look at all the things that are holding you back, and question yourself, you will probably find the same is true for you.

So think about it.

And then do something.


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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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